In August, when I first met Kayla Kobelin, she was sitting on the fence in regard to the biggest decision of her life. She had just recently completed her third Ironman triathlon and her results were impressive; she won her age group and placed fourth overall in the female division. Most importantly, her performance qualified her for a pro card. So at age 24, she was left to weigh her options and grapple with one big question: Should she quit her corporate job in wealth management to pursue life as a professional triathlete?
Kobelin knew if she said yes to going pro she would be sacrificing stability, a regular paycheck and growth in her budding career—all things she admits gave her a great sense comfort.
“Life bumming around as a professional triathlete isn’t glamorous,” Kobelin says. “But I didn’t want to look back and think, I could’ve been a really good athlete. I had this really cool opportunity and not a lot of people get the chance to go after their dream.”
Kobelin, a Bellevue native, beams as she talks about training, racing and the excitement that comes with having the chance to compete on a professional level. “But it’s also so terrifying. It took two months for me to make the decision,” she says. “I wrote it all out, made pros and cons lists, talked to a bunch of people. I didn’t want to make the decision just based on emotions.”
In the end, she did it. In September, she had the difficult discussion with her boss and told him that she wanted to start a career as a professional triathlete.
But there was still one more race in 2018, and it was the most important one of the year—the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. It would be her last performance as an amateur and her first chance to start talking to her peers about the jump into pro sports. It would set the stage for her debut.
Kobelin spent a month in Kona, prior to the race on October 13, acclimating to the heat and notoriously punishing trade winds. During her time there, she trained with other world-class athletes and says all the experiences and connections she made confirmed she’d made the right decision.
However, the big race didn’t go as planned.
“The swim was right where I wanted to be. I had the bike of my life. Then I got off my bike and started running, and my hip completely blew up,” she says. “It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife on every step.”
Kobelin has a photo she keeps on her phone of what she looked like during the 26.2 miles she subsequently ran, and her entire face is wincing in pain and she’s crying, which she said she did for more of the race than not.
“It got so bad some officials pulled me off the course, and they said, ‘You look like you’re in some pretty bad pain; you know you can drop out, it’s OK.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if I finish this thing in 17 hours, I’m going to finish the marathon.’ And that’s what I did. I literally took it step by step, mile by mile,” she says.
For all the suffering, Kobelin still placed sixth in her age group, and although she wanted a faster time, she said she gained an enormous amount of confidence from the race. She isn’t sure what caused her hip to flare up so badly; she had been training with no pain all month. As an athlete her whole life, she simply says, some days you have it and some days you don’t.
“The hardest part for me was to let go of my ego and say, ‘OK, you’re capable of winning this race, but you’re not going to do it today.’ That made it really hard to continue,” she says. The driving force that pushed her to continue was all her friends and family cheering her on through the finish line.
The second time I met up with Kobelin, it was two weeks after the race in Kona. Despite her injury, she hadn’t lost a beat. Equipped with three sponsors at the time of publication—Under Armour, Specialized Bicycles and Edge & Spoke—and some others in the works, Kobelin sees her first attempt at Kona as a major milestone and learning experience. Now she is even more prepared to spend the next year of her life—her first as a professional athlete—training hard and living her dream.